Flashback to When Catching Daytime Swordfish was Mostly a Fantasy -- Then Came the Stanczyks
Updated: Jun 4, 2021
By Ken Perrotte
Author's note: Lately, my mind is flowing back to some incredible fishing trips I've written about in the Florida Keys, most notably out of Bud N' Mary's Marina in Islamorada and Sugarloaf Key Maria further down the storied, beautiful archipelago. I specifically recall one opportunity that was too good to pass up, namely a chance to head out fishing with Richard Stanczyk for broadbill swordfish - in the daytime. As he shared, I'd be the first outdoors writer allowed to tag along to see how he, his son Nick, and fellow fishing guide and friend Vic Gaspeny had mastered a way to reliably catch broadbills during the day. The rub was that my story would have to wait; another writer for Sportfishing magazine had been promised the scoop first. So my tale "rested" a couple months before this article ran in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star newspaper in July 2007. The Stanczyks still fish for just about everything that swims and Nick, now a family man, has a wildly popular social media following. I'm not surprised. I recall him documenting the action with video as a teenager. I hope you enjoy this flashback story.
Islamorada, Fla. – Conventional wisdom holds that swordfish are best caught with rod and reel at night, rigging a complicated system of lights, floats and lures to attract broadbills as they rise from the depths to feed in the moonlight.
The fish are always somewhere, Stanczyk figured. Finding them and then learning how to successfully entice them to daytime bait has been his passion for the last few years.
The technical “How to-where to” part of this story ends here. [although I can now reveal we were in the canyons of the Florida Straits, probably as close to Cuba as Florida, sometimes fishing in water as deep as 1,600 feet and drifting large strips of mahi mahi bellies. That's right - cut bait more than 1/4-mile deep! Heavy, breakaway weights carried the line deep and flashing lights mimicked deep water fish and squid helping guide swordfish to the bait.] Stanczyk grinned through a sunscreen mask of zinc oxide and offered to gut hook me for shark bait if I revealed his technique. Suffice it that Stanczyk and his son Nick, who earned his captain’s certification at age 18 and just graduated from the University of Miami, have broken the code.
It’s no secret that sport fishermen on night swordfish quests often look for deep underwater structure, rugged mountains and canyons well more than 1,000 feet below the surface.
Stanczyk explained big swordfish often rise quickly after being hooked, prompting a furious race to keep the line tight. Just when an angler is deluded into thinking the battle will be short, the fish often breaks the surface, maybe sees the boat, and then points that sword straight toward Davy Jones Locker, sounding more than 1,000 feet in seconds.
Capt. Ben Loy, young skipper of Miss Islamorada party fishing boat, was swordfishing with Stanczyk in mid-May on his day off. He was in the fighting chair when they hooked a huge fish that rose and dove multiple times. After a several-hour war, they claimed the approximately 11-foot-long fish. It broke the Bud ‘N Mary’s scale, but was successfully weighed elsewhere, registering 448 pounds.
Recreational fishermen are beginning to find swordfish in increasing numbers, ostensibly due to the 2001 ban outlawing commercial longline fishing in waters out to 200 miles along Florida's East Coast. Longlining, where boats run miles of line strung with hundreds of baits, decimated Atlantic swordfish populations during the 1970’s and 80’s. Longliners didn’t just devastate the swords, Stanczyk explained, they also wreaked havoc on large sharks, the swords’ main predators.
Since swordfish are an egg-bearing, rapidly growing species (compared to their shark nemeses), they have been able to rebound. The recreational catch, with a National Marine Fisheries Service limit of one fish per person per day and maximum of three fish per boat, is said to be miniscule in the context of overall commercial quotas. Fish measuring at least 47 inches, from lower jaw to fork in the tail, are legal. (note: check regulations for current limits and size restrictions)
Feel the Burn
Casey Dooley slipped into the chair to battle the first fish. When fishing at extreme depths, a bite is often betrayed by a subtle tapping of the heavy rod’s tip. Stanczyk nudged the boat forward to facilitate a good hookup and Dooley began the grunt work of coaxing the fish to the surface.
Dooley gained line five reel turns at a time and after 30 minutes, the fish began yielding. The line rose and straightened horizontally, which sometimes foretells of an impending, spectacular swordfish jump.
“There he is,” Stanczyk exclaimed as the swordfish’s bill and head broke through the water. “That’s a sight rarely seen while the sun is shining, a broadbill swordfish caught in the middle of the day. Zane Grey [the late author of westerns whose passion was fishing for billfish] would be turning over in his grave if he could see us doing this today,” Stanczyk exclaimed!
Nick soon grabbed the heavy leader. Minutes later, the nearly 100-pound fish was wrestled aboard.
I had the next opportunity. We baited up and sent the line to the depths, then waited. I lounged in the cockpit chair, enjoying the blue skies and water. All eyes, especially Richard's were fixated on the rod tip. That bait is a long way down there and I didn't know what a bite would look like. The rod tip seemed to gently flex an inch or two, sort of like the way you might try to barely move a fingertip.
"I think that's a bite," Richard announced.
"You're kidding me," I said, as Richard gunner the boat forward, tightening the line and, hopefully, setting the hook on a swordfish a long way from the boat.
It soon became apparent after several hard turns of the reel that a fish was indeed hooked up. It constantly, grudgingly tugged as I retrieved several hundred feet of line. My right shoulder and forearm burned from the workout. As the color-coded line marker showed about 400 feet to go, I felt a slight change. The bouncing against the rod tip as the fish shook its head ceased. A couple minutes later Stanczyk said, “Ken, I think the fish got off.”
Stick a fork in me. I was done, as the cliche goes...
Kyle Bohannon, another of Nick’s young friends, fought round three. His fish behaved like a larger specimen, rising quickly. In barely 20 minutes, his 140-pound swordfish was near the surface, but the fight was nowhere near finished. The fish sounded several hundred feet four or five more times over the next hour before Nick and Casey were able to sink the gaffs. Grabbing the sword with gloved hands, Nick hauled the fish over the port side gunwale.
Although I was still a partially whupped dog, Kyle’s fish energized me for another try. The sun was beginning to set and a fish hit before the bait reached its target depth. Damn the burn in my legs, shoulder and arm, as long as the fish was giving ground, I cranked until I was numb.
As the line marker again passed the 500-foot mark, Casey leaned over and said, “I’m guessing you’ve got a shark, maybe a mako.”
I also wondered, since the bite came well up in the water column.
“Hopefully we’ll find out in a few minutes,” I said.
The fish gave and took hundreds of feet of line several times, never busting a jump. When the beautiful bronze, silver and purple hues of the swordfish’s sleek body finally neared the surface, Nick secured the leader. Casey narrowly escaped neutering by the three-foot bill as the swordfish made a final twist while being horsed aboard. The fish, another weighing around 100 pounds, slipped the grip and pounded the deck with its tail.
I felt exhilarated and exhausted.
As night fell and the early June air cooled, I lounged in the cockpit chair during the long ride back to the marina. Looking up at the stars shining brightly in the clear night sky, I thanked them for this experience of a lifetime. Returning to the marina, we processed the my swordfish. Richard had arranged for us to bring the meat to a nearby restaurant- a special "cook your catch" place where they prepared the fresh swordfish three ways. Vic joined us. It was the perfect ending to a magnificent day. Oh, and that broadbill sword -- it was preserved and mounted on a wooden base, my handwritten inscription marking the date and place where this incredible memory was forged.
Both offshore and backcountry charter fishing is available at Bud ‘N Mary’s. Call 305-664-2461. You can follow the action on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, as well.
Sidebar - From Accountant to Entrepreneurial Fishing Guide and Marina Owner - Richard Stanczyk's Journey
By Ken Perrotte
Author's Note: This was written two decades ago. I was both enthralled and inspired by Richard Stanczyk's telling of how he decided to make a life-changing move. I regret that it didn't get the magazine play it deserved. Here it is now...and for an extremely detailed article - a retrospective of Stanczyk's life - check out this amazing article in Angler's Journal by Bob Krist
There was a time in Richard Stanzcyk’s early life when he felt compelled to do the responsible thing – go to school, study hard, be the best, damned accountant the University of Miami ever produced.
It was a dream, but it turns out it wasn’t his dream. His epiphany came one early evening as the day’s waning sunlight filtered through security bars on a bank window high above his tiny cubicle. The shadow cast upon his desk had a message for him as he crunched another dreary project. “You’re in prison, but hey, congratulations, you’re the fastest SOB ever with a 10-key adding machine.”
He called his family, telling them he was chucking the program, the degree, and their expectations. He got a boat and became a fisherman.
His first boat was a 52-foot Carolina he couldn’t afford but managed to snag when he sold the boat’s owner, and then publisher of the Miami Herald, James Knight on his passion for fishing and dreams for the future. “Getting that boat changed my whole life,” he declares.
Years later, with tens of thousands of excursions on the waters of South Florida, Mexico, Venezuela, and more, Stanczyk found a way to mesh his earlier coat and tie business experience with his passion for fishing.
He purchased Bud N’ Mary’s Fishing Marina in Islamorada, Florida. Underscore the word “Fishing” in the name. You can’t rent a Jet Ski or other personal watercraft there, or even take a glass-bottom boat ride, but, if you want to fish with people who live to fish, the number belongs in your Rolodex. Over the years, he fished with heroes and rogues and some who were a little of both. The marina, a Florida Keys sport fishing beacon, dates to World War II.
In a time when faceless corporations, with knowledgeable, but often less than passionate managers, own many marinas in tourist towns, Stanczyk is a throwback to earlier days, the owner-operator who’s in the biz for the love of it. If he weren’t the owner or a captain, he’d likely be the place’s best customer.
Loyalty counts. Boyhood friends work the docks, mind the store, guide the fishing clients. When the son of a local charter captain tragically dies in an auto wreck, Stanczyk organized the entire Islamorada fishing community for a benefit fish fry and scattering of the ashes at sea. The charter boats line up in the funeral procession. Kids of other friends and associates find work and role models at Bud N’ Mary’s. Old timers sit around and catch up on gossip or watch the boats come in. When a young U.S. Marine, short on cash but long on a hankering to wet a line, asks for permission to fish from the property’s shoreline, he’s waved on. Sometimes it’s okay to cut people breaks – Stanczyk knows.
Now, solidly middle age, he sees his own older kids completing college, heading off to do the responsible thing. His youngest son, Nick, is barely a teenager, but clearly has inherited dad’s love of the water. Richard cultivates this and hopes he’s grooming his heir to the marina he loves.
Marina hours can be extensive and long after the crews put the charter boats to bed for the evening, Stanzcyk is often found crunching the business numbers in the office. He usually escapes to the ocean at least once weekly. A phone is on the boat, but the marina hands know not to call when the boss is out for therapy unless the dock is burning down.
Soul of a Fisherman
It’s early May. Stanczyk uses a push pole to propel his 18-foot flats boat, through a piece of prime hunting ground in Florida Bay. He’s looking for a little tail -- bonefish tail that is. Lemon sharks, six feet long, plow away from the boat in water a little more than a foot deep. Stingrays, eagle rays, and other species swim at arm’s length.
Stanczyk explains that a tailing bonefish in the saltwater flats is almost like a vacuum cleaner, burrowing with its nose to root out shrimp, crabs or other meals. "When it's really working the bottom, the tail and dorsal fin actually come up out of the water," he said.
He counsels not to make quick movements, keep feet still and generally avoid anything that would warn the wary bones.
"Cast to the end that eats, not behind them," Richard advises, when a bonefish is spotted 50 yards ahead. "Presentation is everything."
The angler (me-haha) desperately desires to lay a feed in front of the fish that would rival a Florida flats five-star restaurant and flips the shrimp-baited hook.
"He's coming," Richard says excitedly from his poling perch. "He's got it. Crank, crank, crank!"
Line screams off the reel. The silver-scaled torpedo makes a long, zig-zagging run, threatening to strip the spool. Richard pushes the boat forward like a maniac helping the angler retrieve line.
Minutes later, following more expert coaching, the estimated 8-pound fish is scooped into the boat for some quick pictures before it’s released.
The fishing isn’t over and Stanzcyk guides the anglers to a rendezvous with a 110-pound tarpon at twilight, the tremendous fight a perfect nightcap. Before navigating through the darkness and the mangrove channels to the marina, he picks up the phone. The call, though, isn’t to the office; it’s back to Nick. Like best buddies swapping stories, he wants to know how his boy’s evening of fishing went. His eyes beam as he listens, then he shares the excitement of his boat’s successes.
“See you at the dock,” he signs off.